Last Living Belgian Condemned as Nazi Collaborationist Dies in San Sebastián

Paul Van Aerschodt
Paul Van Aerschodt

Last Living Belgian Condemned as Nazi Collaborationist Dies in San Sebastián
Paul van Aerschod had lived in Spain under a false identity since 1964
El País: Muere en San Sebastián el último belga condenado por colaboracionista
R.M. De Rituerto and E. Larrauri reporting from Brussels and Bilbao, respectively, October 10, 2011

Two notices printed by the Donostian press last Saturday announced the death of Pablo Simons De Aerschot, with a photograph of him as a smiling old man. In one of the obituaries, his grandchildren bid him farewell in Basque and French. Like any good integrated family, they offered information about the wake and funeral. Under this apparent normality was hidden a criminal of war who successfully evaded condemnation to death for collaboration with the Nazi regime.

Belgium has a tortuous relationship with its past, partially because the country was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War and partially because it produced thousands of collaborationists in the north, because of Hitler’s mad overtures to the separatist ambitions of Flemish nationalists, and in the south, for simple Fascist philia and the anti-Communism of the Walloons belonging to the monarchist movement of Léon Degrelle, who died in Málaga in 1994, half a century after escaping Belgium and receiving protection in Francoist Spain.

Now Paul van Aerschodt has passed away in San Sebastián, at 88 years of age one of the last living followers of Degrelle and the last living Belgian condemned to death for collaborationism. His story is one of adventure, defiance, false identity, and eternal flight with moments of glory as striking as working for the United Nations as a member of the International Labour Organization, serving as a tourism expert, and, he said, reuniting in Bolivia with ex-Nazi leader Martin Bormann, who was passing a placid life there as a Redemptorist priest, and with Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, later condemned to life in prison.

The death of Van Aeschodt has passed practically unnoticed in his country of birth, although he had time in the spotlight there a year and a half ago when it was discovered that in 2008 he’d been detained inside Belgium for the crimes for which he’d been condemned in 1946, after which he swiftly escaped again to his Donostian refuge, where people came to speak with him there, they had to hear: “Yes, I was a collaborationist. So what?”

His collaboration began at age 18, when he joined the monarchists in recruiting tens of thousands of young Walloons as volunteers for Nazi Germany. His war alias was “The Giant Blonde with the Revolver”, and with it he denounced 2500 boys who resisted volunteering, of whom 20 were executed. These activities, four years of work for the Nazis, and his membership in the Hitler Youth earned him a death sentence for rebelliousness and the deprivation of his Belgian citizenship in 1946; that year, he had already escaped to Spain following the defeat of Hitler. His past is cloudy from that point forward; there was apparently a wedding in Spain, the creation of a large family, and a little-detailed escape to Bolivia, which gave shelter to escaped Nazis. In La Paz, he opened a restaurant under the name Juan Pablo Simons, and he lived there until he returned to Spain in 1964.

The pairing of the name Simons with the name Van Aerschodt in a notary certificate in 2006 raised suspicions of Belgian intelligence veterans who had dedicated themselves in their old age to hunting escaped war criminals. Their involved inquiries lead to the Belgian police catching the fugitive in 2008, during one of his not-inhabitual stays in Belgium. The judge could do nothing but verify that the sentence for Van Aerschodt’s crimes had lapsed in 1976, and in the absence of non-lapsable crimes against humanity on his record, the judge had no choice but to set him free. But by the time the judicial order of liberty was given, Simons-Van Aerschodt had already escaped, this time to Lille, where he took a train through Paris to San Sebastián, where he was able to die without paying for his crimes.

Allan Jackson World War II Photo Stavelot Belgium
An American soldier looks at the cadaver of a child in Stavelot, Belgium in 1944. Photo by Allan Jackson, provided by Keystone (Getty).

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